Browns welcome young guns to staff

CLEVELAND – Pro football is indeed a young man’s game, which is evident by some of the assistants hired by Browns coach Mike Pettine.

Looking at defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan sitting next to each other at a press conference Thursday, you might have guessed that they were being named to a high school staff. O’Neil is 35 and Shanahan is 34. Their combined NFL coaching experience is 15 years – five for O’Neil and 10 for Shanahan.

Pettine managed to joke about O’Neil’s youthful appearance, saying that he grew some facial hair in recent days to look older.

The Browns have tried every approach to assembling a winning coaching staff without success for 15 years. Maybe hiring two coordinators with a combined age that’s seven years younger than Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will finally be the winning formula.

Shanahan arrives after four seasons as offensive coordinator for his father Mike with the Washington Redskins. Prior to then he was the Houston Texans offensive coordinator for two seasons.

Pettine talked highly of Shanahan, singling out his ability to direct offenses that are run-oriented or pass-oriented. In the 2012 season, Shanahan worked successfully with then-rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and rookie running back Alfred Morris, who rushed for 1,613 yards.

Shanahan currently doesn’t have a RG III-type quarterback on the roster, nor does he have a running back that’s remotely close to Morris at his disposal. As a coach who has become accustomed to running the read option from the pistol formation, Shanahan will have to adapt to the talent at hand.

“The pistol is just a few feet behind center, so there’s not much difference from taking the ball under center,” Shanahan said. “What the pistol gives you is the threat of the zone read. It doesn’t mean you have to run the zone read out of it, but you can run the rest of your offense out of the pistol, where you can’t always in shotgun.

“In Washington when we first ran the pistol, we ran everything we had always done in Houston and in Washington years prior. It just so happens you can run the zone read out of it as well. I’d love to find a way to run it under center, but I don’t know that way, yet. If you have a guy that can be a threat in that, it’s a good thing to bring to the offense.”

The answer to Shanahan’s dilemma in trying to implement his offense with the Browns could be the selection of a read-option style quarterback in the draft. Can you say Johnny Manziel?

Shanahan probably won’t have much say in what the Browns do in the draft, but he feels his experience working with RG III would help in dealing with a rookie quarterback.

“When you bring a rookie in and they start right away, you have to find out what they do well,” Shanahan said. “You have to make sure you put them in a situation to be successful and don’t ask too much of them. You don’t want to put too much pressure on them. Make it loose on him and make it stuff he’s confident in doing and what he’s done prior that’s made him successful.”

O’Neil’s challenge on paper doesn’t seem as daunting as the challenge facing Shanahan. The defense ranked ninth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed but gave up 406 points – 10th most in the league.

Holding leads was a problem that needs to be addressed. The defense yielded leads in eight of the 11 games the Browns lost.

“If you’re prepared, you have confidence to make plays in those situations,” said O’Neil, formerly the Buffalo Bills linebackers coach. “We’re going to thrive, not survive. We don’t want our guys to be scared to make plays. If they see something go; pull the trigger. You have to do the best you can to try to simulate that in practice. The offensive and defensive staffs are already talking trash to each other.”

Boys will be boys on this youthful staff.